"You do know that you're talking in rhyme, don't you?"
Any issues I have with this film can sort of be summed up by that quote. It's trying to be meta and clever and self-aware when it just doesn't need to be. The official title of this film is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, but I seriously doubt, after watching the film, that such claims of authorship are necessary. This is not Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. This is Hollywood Motion Picture Studio's The Lorax. I am glad in a way that I waited a full 24 hours before writing this review, because if I had written it immediately after leaving the theater, I would have completely and totally trashed it. In retrospect, the power of the story is such that even the weak nonsense & filler they put around it can't totally diminish its message.
The main addition to Dr. Seuss' original tale is taking the nameless visitor to the Once-ler's home and giving him a name, Ted, and an entire society that's been built in the aftermath of the events of the book. Ted (Zac Efron) lives in Thneedville, an artificial utopia where citizens pay for clean air, have trees made of fiberglass and lightbulbs, and live in blissful ignorance of anything that may be going on outside of its walls. The town is run by a tycoon named Mr. O'Hare* (Rob Riggle) who, we're told through backstory, came to power after The Once-ler's business ran dry. O'Hare controls the clean air & takes serious umbrage with anyone who wants to know what's going on in the world outside of Thneedville.
Ted's in love with a girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift, cue eye roll) who wants nothing more than to see a real tree. She paints pictures of trees in her backyard, and Ted makes it his mission to get her a real tree. A conversation with his grandmother (Betty White) leads Ted on a quest to find The Once-ler (Ed Helms) and find out exactly what happened to all the trees. The film more or less unfolds like the book after this, with lots of unnecessary filler, as The Once-ler tells his tale of his quest to make money, and how his destruction of the forest ran him afoul of a mythical creature named The Lorax (Danny DeVito, in the one stroke of casting genius) who "speaks for the trees." The last part of the film, after The Once-ler gives Ted the last Truffula seed, unfolds like an action-packed race against time, as Ted and Audrey try to plant the seed before O'Hare can foil their plan.
Alright, so let's talk about what works. There's no destroying the environmental message of Dr. Seuss' book (though lord knows these filmmakers try), and I think that if nothing else, kids will take that with them into the world after the film is over. As I said before DeVito is brilliant as The Lorax, beyond the fact that I'm an unabashed admirer, mainly from his work on It's Always Sunny... but he nails the gruff sounding Lorax I've had in my head for thirty-some years. And... that's about it.
So what doesn't work? Everything else. Padding a thirty page picture book to feature length is always a dangerous proposition. Of the four Dr. Seuss adaptations thus far, I think only 2008's Horton Hears a Who added anything worthwhile to the book, and even then it was still a ton of filler. That film also had Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and lots of other insanely talented comedians in its voice cast. This film has Betty White & Rob Riggle, both of whom I like, and neither of whom are given nothing much to do.
Ed Helms is not an actor I'm particularly fond of, even in films I liked such as Cedar Rapids. Here, he is woefully miscast. He doesn't have an ounce of menace to his voice, and tries to infuse The Once-ler with humanity, which is the last thing in the world The Once-ler needs. This is also something I should fault the writers for, I suppose. The Once-ler ends up being a victim of circumstance in this film, instead of a merciless industrialist that would make Ayn Rand get all moist in her dead panties. They paint him as a decent guy who gets caught up in industry, instead of a guy with a plan that runs completely counter to being a good steward of nature.
That's an issue. A big one in my book, and one I can't quite get past. His song that he sings as he starts making money off selling Thneeds is so heavy-handed, it may as well have been written by someone from Fox News trying to imitate what a song written by an evil-environmentalist would sound like. And why do we need to take at least an eighth of the book and shove it into a montage? The book is short enough as is, and the animals leaving the forest is relegated to a montage. It's a fairly significant portion of the book because it shows The Lorax coming to the Once-ler at several points to let him know what he's doing to the environment, and hoping that he'll stop, but here, they just cram it all into a not-very-catchy tune.
The songs are pretty lame too, by the way. Coming off a year that gave us The Muppets & Winnie The Pooh, which had magical songs that moved the story along in addition to being awesome, the four or five musical numbers in this film felt shoehorned in to cater to a cast full of singers like Efron & Swift. It's just more filler in a film that didn't need anymore. I really wanted to like this film, I was downright excited to go see it, but that excitement faded pretty quickly. My daughters liked it, but I was just severely disappointed with the whole thing. I think it could have been so much better than it was, and it just felt lazy to me.
Kids don't need to be spoon-fed or pandered to, and that's what this film did. Dr. Seuss was able to clearly and concisely get his point across through metaphor & whimsy. This film felt the need to spell everything out. I would love for Pixar to do a Seuss adaptation because I think they might get it right, but honestly, his books are pretty much perfect just the way they are. They didn't need singing & dancing & heavy-handed nonsense to get their point across. I don't know necessarily where the filmmakers who made The Lorax went wrong, but I think it started when they thought that they needed to add anything to this story to make it good. The animation is gorgeous, but sometimes, that's just not enough.
*Brad Bird should pursue serious legal action against the creators of this character's design as he is a blatant rip-off of Edna Mole from The Incredibles. For cereal.